The land of Lowry

Land that Michael Lowry co-owns had previously interested a firm which involved individuals who were questioned by the Moriarty Tribunal, reports Investigative Correspondent Conor Ryan

THE Moriarty Tribunal’s inquiries into three English land deals which took place in the late 1990s involved evidence given and sought from a number of key people.

Four witnesses testified about their respective involvement in property projects that included Doncaster Rovers, Cheadle, and Mansfield. The four were Christopher Vaughan, Helen Malone, Aidan Phelan, and Morton Thornton accountants.

Two others — Kevin Phelan and Paul May — were asked to testify to the tribunal during the same line of inquiry, but they decided not to take the stand.

It has now emerged that all six were also involved in a company that drew up an unfulfilled plan to acquire a 26-acre development site at Junction 25 outside Wigan in 1998.

A 22-acre section of the same property is now owned by Michael Lowry after he and his business partner bought the land in 2001 and subsequently sold off a small portion of it.

Mr Lowry, an Independent TD for North Tipperary, has stressed that his transaction was directly with the land owner and it had nothing to do with these individuals or the company they were involved in, Avoneve. He said any insinuation that Avoneve was involved in his deal was false.

Avoneve’s involvement pre-dated Mr Lowry’s by three years. At the time Avoneve was also part of associated negotiations to purchase options on 200 acres on the same land bank at junction 25. The company’s plan was to build a hotel, commercial complex, and residential estate.

A draft agreement, to purchase options on the land, was drawn up on behalf of this firm in Jul 1998. It appears Avoneve never activated the agreement.

In 2000/2001 Mr Lowry secured rights to purchase the same options on the 200-acre land bank. These options have since expired and Mr Lowry said they were agreed directly with the local farmers and not with any third-party firm.

According to Mr Lowry, there were problems with getting planning permission. His company, Vineacre Ltd, gave up on attempts to develop the land in line with its original ambitions.

Mr Lowry and his partner also sold a portion of the 26-acre site which was purchased by their Vineacre company in 2001.

The 22-acre plot they retain is now the subject of an investigation by the Standards in Public Office Commission.

This is because of Mr Lowry’s failure to declare his 50% stake in the asset in his register of member’s interests.

The people involved in Avoneve in 1998 were Mr Vaughan, Kieran Phelan, Mr May, Ms Malone, Aidan Phelan, and Morton Thornton accountants.

Their involvement with the Moriarty Tribunal arose from three different, but linked, transactions.

nKevin Phelan: The land agent who prepared and presented the deals for Doncaster Rovers, Cheadle, and Mansfield. In 1998 he negotiated the options agreement for Avoneve at Wigan. He later prepared the options package for Mr Lowry’s company, Vineacre. Mr Lowry has testified that Mr Phelan was paid £65,000 by Vineacre for this work.

* Christopher Vaughan: An English solicitor who acted in the English land deals which were probed by the tribunal. He was company secretary of Avoneve and handled legal letters for the Wigan property. He also handled issues at Mansfield and Cheadle, and was the company secretary of Doncaster Rovers.

When contacted, he said: “I have no comment to make. Those parts of your statement that are not in the public domain are covered by solicitor-client privilege.”

* Aidan Phelan: His chartered company secretary, Helen Malone, was a director of Avoneve. He told the tribunal he played a lead role in the Doncaster deal because he was Denis O’Brien’s accountant and adviser.

Mr Phelan said he was a partner with Mr Lowry in the Cheadle and Mansfield schemes. The tribunal rejected his testimony regarding these matters. Efforts were made to contact Mr Phelan directly and through his solicitors but they were unsuccessful.

nHelen Malone: She was involved in preparations for Mansfield and Cheadle on the instructions of Aidan Phelan. She was Mr Phelan’s business partner in a firm called AP Consulting. She was a director of Avoneve during the planning for Wigan in 1998. Efforts were made to contact Ms Malone but she could not be reached.

* Paul May: He was a director of Avoneve when the Wigan options agreement was drafted. At the time he managed the day-to-day running of the Doncaster Rovers project. He did not respond to a request for comment.

* Morton Thornton (accountants): The firm was hired to work on the Doncaster Rovers project by Mr May, who was a college friend of one of its accountants, Craig Tallents. It also prepared the annual returns for Avoneve Ltd.

Mr Tallents no longer works for Morton Thornton. The company said it could not access files going back that long but had no reason to dispute the records showing that it acted for Avoneve. Mr Tallents was contacted by email but had not replied at the time of going to press.

Avoneve Ltd was advised by solicitors Eyton Morris Winfield during the Wigan negotiations. This has been confirmed by the law firm.

In 1998 Ms Malone, Mr Vaughan, Mr May, Aidan Phelan, and Kevin Phelan were also involved in another company, Beachwild Ltd. This firm handled a land deal at Regency House in Luton. There was no suggestion this company did anything to warrant investigation by the tribunal.

Ms Malone replaced Mr May on Avoneve’s board on Sept 24, 1998. On the same day, Mr Lowry met Mr May, Kevin Phelan, and Mr Vaughan in England to discuss his property investments. This meeting formed the basis of a prolonged line of questioning by the tribunal to establish whether Mr Lowry was connected to the Doncaster Rovers development.

It found the meeting took place in Mr May’s house, despite conflicting claims by Mr Lowry and Mr Vaughan.

The options agreement drafted for the Wigan property involved a number of different landowners and a mining firm that had rights to develop the area.

In Jul 1998, Avoneve agreed to spend stg£58,502 to purchase the options on the adjoining farms at Wigan from the mining firm, Rackwood Colliery Company.

It also arranged to pay £1.24m to fulfil those deals if planning permission was secured.

Ultimately Avoneve did not pursue the development.

Three years later Mr Lowry and his business partner acquired the options from the landowners through a company called Vineacre. It also bought the 26-acre site from Rackwood’s agent, Jack Robinson, for an unknown sum.

It sold a small portion of this tract, which had residential zoning, for £750,000. The two partners retain 22 acres and Mr Lowry has said, in an interview to Tipp FM, he hopes that one day it will be approved for rezoning.

In the draft Avoneve agreement, from Jul 1998, it had committed to pay Rackwood £275,000 for the freehold to the site.

Both Avoneve and Vineacre used the same agent, Kevin Phelan, and were engaged with the same agent on Rackwood’s side, Jack Robinson.

It was not known what Vineacre paid for the options. However, an agreement filed with the Land Registry shows that Vineacre has promised to pay £10,500 per developable acre if residential planning permission is granted for the 26-acre site before 2026.

* RELATED STORY: Links between Lowry’s ‘worthless’ Wigan land and deals probed by Moriarty

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